Helping People Understand Data

We are flooded with data and we don’t understand most of it. While the below HBR tip of the day has specifics about communicating outside the company, I think that the basic concept — helping people understand the data — is a fundamental part of being a Business Analyst.

Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

The standard mantra you hear is “too much data, not enough information” or “information is data made actionable”. These sayings are all getting at the fact that looking at data does not convey everything that we can learn from the data. Understand what is being looked at, understand the limitations of the data, understanding the assumptions in the data, understanding the cleanliness of the data. That is critical to having a business leverage the data they have.

But data can steer you wrong if you don’t know the information around the data.

When someone is looking at a report, is it easy to see the metadata? When someone looks at a spreadsheet or a PDF output of some sort, can they see where the data comes from and what assumptions are in place?

It is easy to simply slap a report out for the requester to get what they want. Too often, the requester and the report writer miss the fact that someone else is going to use this report six months from now and not have the same background the requester had. Or think differently from the requester.

So when writing reports or creating spreadsheets or otherwise presenting DATA that is meant to be understood, consider adding this information (automatically updated, of course) to them:

  • metadata (date of data, all the parameters, specified and implied filter and sort parameters)
  • Where did the data come from? Can you provide a link back to the original data for detail reports?
  • What are the calculated fields and what are the calculations?
  • Who is responsible for the data?
  • Who do I talk to if I have questions?
  • Do the field names make absolute sense to everyone looking at the report?
Help People Understand Your Data by Making It Relatable
People can’t use data to make decisions if they don’t understand what the numbers mean. To help colleagues wrap their heads around a data point — how big or tiny it is, how important it should seem — compare it with something concrete and relatable. When you’re talking about lengths of time, frame your data in terms of flights between cities, TV episodes, or how long it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn — whatever your audience will know. When you’re talking about size, use places and things that are familiar to listeners. For instance, if you were trying to show a San Francisco audience what 1 million users really looks like, you might mention the San Francisco Giants baseball field, which has 41,915 seats: “Our users would fill the stadium almost 24 times.” Articulating figures this way can keep the narrative from getting lost in the numbers.
This tip is adapted from 3 Ways to Help People Understand What Your Data Means,” by Nancy Duarte

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